AFGHANISTAN IS facing a new invasion. While US and British troops search for Taliban fighters, an army of big businesses are scouring the country for lucrative reconstruction deals. Billions of pounds in transport, power, agriculture and construction projects are up for grabs.
Afghanistan has the world's lowest electricity consumption, only one in ten people have access to sanitation and millions of people are homeless. Naturally, British corporations are rubbing their hands in glee at this devastation.
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has set up its own website 'to signpost opportunities for British companies' in the country. The DTI is determined not to lose out to its US rivals, as it did after the Gulf War. Development agents Crown Agents have been in Kabul. They are distributing some £260 million in British aid money.
Firms are lining up to benefit from this and a possible $10 billion of UN aid. Around 80 British firms claim 'knowledge of the region' because they are already active in Pakistan. These companies had better grab the aid money quickly, before the sham peace falls apart and Afghanistan plunges into more horror.
Bear faced paranoia
WORLD LEADERS face a new, grizzly security threat. The G8 summit takes place this month in the Canadian Rockies, specially chosen to avoid anti-capitalist protesters. But another threat has emerged-seven foot tall, weighing 850 pounds, with very big claws.
Grizzly bears will just be coming out of hibernation. The authorities are hunting and catching dozens of bears before the meeting. Captured bears will be fitted with radio collars so that their movements can be monitored.
Hundreds of security staff have also been briefed about how to deal with threats from wolves, cougars and, most dangerous of all, pregnant mice.
Thanks to Sam Robson of Newcastle for this story.
ANN Summers, the sex shop chain, has been banned from advertising for staff at job centres. Apparently, government legislation states that the industry must not be officially encouraged.
The government was happy to encourage porn merchant Richard Desmond by accepting £100,000 from him. Obviously Asian Babes, Big and Black, Mothers-in-Law, 50-plus and Only-18, presenting 'Barely legal teens for the connoisseurs of young beauty', are more in line with government policy.
Mills and (offshore) boons
OUR NEWS and entertainment media are to be opened up to foreign ownership. Culture secretary Tessa Jowell announced the easing of restrictions on foreign companies in parliament two weeks ago.
The announcement prompted fears that media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi could grab TV stations such as Channel Five. Tessa Jowell is probably not too worried by the idea. Her husband, David Mills, has been Berlusconi's lawyer for 20 years.
He helped Berlusconi dodge round a law passed by the Italian parliament, requiring Berlusconi to limit his media interests. Mills registered himself as owner of one of Berlusconi's TV stations and set up an offshore holding company in the British Virgin Islands.
The old for new
JUST DAYS after the Potters Bar train disaster three train operating companies are trying to get round safety legislation.
They want permission to use their old carriages until December 2004. Old carriages provide less protection than modern ones in accidents. The companies are Connex South Eastern, Govia (formerly South Central) and South West Trains.
SCHOOLS moved closer to being branded by big firms last week when details of a new scheme, Schools Plus, were announced. It is run by a privately funded company and raises money through companies offering discount vouchers for its products.
The logos coming to a school near you include those of Marks & Spencer, Littlewoods, Burton's Biscuits and Black & Decker. Look out for woodwork with Black & Decker, personal and social education with Littlewoods and uniforms sponsored by Marks and Sparks.
Weeds in the garden
THE CHELSEA flower show has proved a surprise hit on TV. It's got the lot-royalty, celebrities and the odd flower. Merrill Lynch sponsor the show. They use it to entertain hundreds of clients. Tickets to the gala preview cost £300 each and a table in the main tent can be as much as £15,000.
'It's a small price to pay if it generates billion-dollar deals,' quipped one merchant banker. Not everything is blooming in the Merrill Lynch garden, however. It announced last week that another 2,000 jobs were to be axed. It lost $3 billion last year.
No account for the poor
THE government will be paying all benefits through the banking system in a year's time. Poorer customers are being denied access to bank accounts-because of government policy.
The 'war on terrorism' has meant putting banks under pressure to prevent money laundering. Banks are refusing to set up accounts for people without driving licences and passports or recent utilities bills.
A survey by the Financial Services Consumer Panel found many poorer applicants were not told of basic accounts available. Many employers required staff to have a bank account. Without them they can lose their jobs today and their benefits tomorrow.
Things they say
'IT'S A shame about Japan. They let in the people who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and yet they won't let Diego in.'
AGENT of Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona after he was banned from the World Cup in Japan because of a 1991 drug conviction
'I WOULD have ordered caviar and chips if I knew I was going to be charged.'
MICHAEL O'BRIEN after winning £650,000 compensation for spending 11 years in jail for a murder he didn't commit. The Home Office charged him £37,000 for his prison bed and board
'PALESTINIANS don't suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judaeo-Christian culture. Truth is seen as an irrelevant category. There is only that which serves your purpose.'
'Moderate' former Israeli prime minister EHUD BARAK making a racist slur against all Arabs
'MARX DID get me to where I am. It's strange me being a sleeping anti-capitalist working in a business that is all based on money.'
WILL YOUNG, Pop Idol winner, who will sing at the queen's jubilee celebrations
'WE recognise that we were using the vehicle for something that wasn't normal. It was fully cleaned and then used to move the deceased patients from the wards to the mortuary.'
Spokesperson for HEARTLANDS AND SOLIHULL NHS TRUST on the use of a rubbish vehicle to transport two dead people
'Home secretary David Blunkett would make a better Tory than shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin.'
Former Thatcher minister NORMAN TEBBIT